For several years, nonprofits have been trying to figure out how to bring the benefits of technology to developing countries and to others who do not have resources to participate in the technology revolution.
[And as a personal aside: Did I say “revolution”? Can it still be a “revolution”? We’ve been living with computers since 1981 or so – longer for some folks – and yet we’re still thinking of the marvels of technology as a “revolution.” Why is that? Probably because the changes come so fast with technology – and are ongoing – that for many of the wordsmiths, we just can’t get away from how “revolutionary” it all is.]
If it is still a technology revolution – and it well could be for people who have not been able to participate – there have been many well-meaning, even noble efforts to eliminate the digital divide. We’re not there yet, but a new perspective was delivered by Stephanie Strom, writing in The New York Times on 16 August.
In Nonprofits Review Technology Failures, Strom tells enlightening and sometimes even entertaining stories about some of the mistakes made when nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), philanthropic organizations, and similar well-meaning groups take up the cause of “wiring the world.” Culture and environment intervene, and while it would be lovely to hear that every computer sent into a needy environment is immediately turned on and brings about substantive change, it just doesn’t happen. Not often enough, that is.
What’s the problem? There are a couple of things at play here. For one, if you saw the recent photo essay (also in The Times) about how people in the slums in Ghana tear up discarded computers for the precious metal inside – A Global Graveyard for Computers in Ghana – you quickly realize that for many people a computer simply represents a thing, something that can be taken apart to yield something else that might be useful or sold. It happens all the time, and a typical experience took place a few years ago in a city in America (and this has probably happened in other places as well) when computers were donated to a school. A well-intentioned gesture, but the school had no instructors in technology training and had a history of major discipline problems . So the computers were simply stolen.
Another point of view on the subject, which forms the introduction to Strom’s story, is that some cultures are just not prepared for the changes that technology can bring. If technology – as Strom illustrates – can move women into a better economic status, is that end result something that matches what is needed – or desired – by the community of which the newly skilled technologists are a part?
As our title suggests, perhaps we’ve been putting the focus in the wrong place. As regular readers know, here at SMR International we are pretty seriously involved in volunteer work with one of the NGOs in Africa. As we do this work, an immediate observation is that this the group is very carefully looking beyond technology as technology. The NGO is the Information Africa Organization, and for the folks driving IAO, the attention isn’t on the technology. It’s on how technology will be used to help the young people of Kenya (and, at the same time, help their employers achieve their corporate goals). IAO’s purpose is to support ICT and KM training for Kenya’s youth – where the unemployment disparity is the greatest – and to see that young people get the training employers require. If they are successful – and they will be – Kenya will have a labor force that is trained to use technology. The employers will supply the technology, and the young people, once trained, will be positioned to use that technology for the employer’s benefit and – not to be dismissed lightly – to enable them to earn their own livings.
So perhaps what we’re seeing in Strom’s examples – and the many others we so frequently hear about – is that the focus should be less on the technology and more on what to do with it. Perhaps the way to deal with the digital divide is think about what will be gained, once the divide is closed.
Dale Stanley says
I don’t know much about applying technology in non-profits and the like. However, I am reminded of a lesson we seem to constantly re-learn in industry: If you don’t take into account the human processes along the way, you run the risk of either zero up-take (because you didn’t do good human change management) and/or you find yourselves merely continuing to do the wrong things — just faster.
My 82-year-old mother has a computer. On it, she has a little sign that says, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” I think this warning is just as applicable to large NGOs as it does to great-grandmothers.
Technology is still merely a tool. And as such, we should not blame it for failed implementations. Rather, as you say, we must look beyond that.
Two of the basic skills we teach and implement at SMR are “The Knowledge Audit” and “Change Management”.
Any organization that thinks they can make a difference with technology while not “looking beyond the technology” by applying these principles has, in my opinion, a low chance of success and increases the odds of “really fouling things up”